Adventures in nature supercharge student growth

A Parent’s Thoughts on Williamsburg’s Outdoor Program

I am a 58-year-old father of a Williamsburg high school junior. I recently had an opportunity to experience the Elevation class at Williamsburg first hand due to a rather unique situation. My daughter has a form of epilepsy that can become life threatening rather quickly if she has a seizure. My wife and I were reasonably worried about her safety in a situation where she could be relatively far from emergency and hospital services. My daughter strongly desired to attend the Elevation class in spite of this obstacle, so we asked Williamsburg if she could attend Elevation under the condition that I be allowed to be present at the camp. In case of a seizure, I would be ready with emergency medication, a cell phone, car, and my personal knowledge of her medical history. I presupposed that this request would be quite an imposition on the Williamsburg staff, but I was wrong. My request was quickly agreed to.

I came to Elevation with the attitude that I would help in whatever ways I could but that I would otherwise stay out of everyone’s way and just be there in case my daughter had a seizure. The Williamsburg mentors, however, had an entirely and unexpectedly different perspective. From the moment we arrived, I was invited to be a full participant in the Elevation experience. They even made me an “honorary trail guide.” I gladly accepted that invitation and fully immersed myself into an experience that I soon discovered was much more challenging and rewarding than I had ever imagined.  

On the first day, the students are grouped into “pods” with approximately eight students per pod. The members of a pod quickly get to know each other very well. Each pod is led by a mentor and a trail guide. The mentors and trail guides are simply amazing. They truly care about the students, and they succeed in challenging them to go beyond what they thought they were capable of achieving. The challenges come in various forms – physical, mental, and spiritual. The spiritual challenges are accomplished outside of any religious beliefs. Students are neither encouraged nor discouraged from discussing their beliefs. The emphasis is all on being authentic and real, which opens up the heart and mind for self-discovery and personal improvement. All participation is welcomed and embraced.

Each day of Elevation has a theme. The daily activities are organized to support that theme. The themes for my Elevation week were Focus, Challenge, Leadership, Harmony, and Transformation. The activities supported the themes extremely well. The physical challenges at Elevation include rock wall climbing, rappelling, rope ascension/climbing, crossfit training, yoga, and numerous other activities.  Often the physical and mental challenges coincided. For example, even though I was harnessed and safe during rock wall climbing, I found myself still a bit unnerved as I was scrabbling for handholds and footholds 50 feet up a nearly vertical rock wall. I had to convince my brain that if I fell, the safety equipment and people would stop my fall almost as soon as it started. Students are not forced to do the activities, and they are allowed to stop or quit if things get too intense, but they are strongly encouraged to try them. If students are already experienced at a certain activity, the mentors encourage them to perform that activity in a way that is more challenging than they have done it in the past. For example, in rock climbing, experienced students might be encouraged to try a more difficult climb or to beat their previous time. The whole concept behind Elevation is to stretch yourself by going beyond what you have already done or what you think you are capable of doing. Even when you fail, you still learn more about yourself and experience personal growth as a result.

You might be thinking, “Well, my student could do that in a standard classroom setting too, perhaps by doing extra credit problems or simply doing more homework than is actually assigned.” While I would agree with you to a point, I also assert that Elevation supercharges that kind of growth. After experiencing Elevation, I believe your student may view traditional classroom learning difficulties in a new light. I think they may say “This is tough, but I faced greater challenges at Elevation and overcame them.” Each person is unique and there are no guarantees, but I have already made a couple personal improvement changes in my life based on insights I gained at Elevation.

Elevation is categorized as a Leadership course at Williamsburg, and rightly so. From the moment they arrive to the moment they leave, students have a vast array of opportunities to lead both themselves and others. It is both amazing and refreshing to see what these students do. A dozen hands would go up when a mentor would ask for a couple volunteers, and that was before the mentor even told them what they were volunteering for. There was never a shortage of volunteers. These students arrive ready to work and serve. During sharing time, students would confidently discuss their challenges and successes in front of the 90 people who were present. I observed students helping mentors and other students in a myriad of ways. During activities, students were given a problem that they had to solve. Solving the problem usually had both physical and mental aspects. Always it required leadership. Leaders were not appointed or voted on. Rather, they sprang up organically like a plant from the ground. Often there were multiple leaders, and often the leadership role changed hands or was shared. All opinions on a problem were welcomed and heard respectfully. Students were left feeling good about their participation even when their idea was not used or did not work.

Part of Elevation was a service project where the students cleaned up large logs and dead-fall from the creek. I have been on several church mission trips, but I have never seen a group of students with such a great service attitude. Some of the students went to work right in the creek where, I can assure you, the water is cold. The student who made the greatest impression on me was in the mud and muck right next to the creek, picking up large water-soaked logs and carrying them to the dumping point. She needed a little help getting her stack balanced, so I took the largest water-soaked log from her. It was so heavy that I offered to carry it myself.  With a smile she said, “No, go ahead and put it on the stack in my arms.” When I asked her where she got her incredible strength from, she replied, “From wrestling with my brothers.” Wow!

When students are intensely challenged as they are at Elevation, they need some down time also. They get a couple good doses of that each day as well. The most popular game during down time is “koosh,” a variant on the old dodge ball game I played as a kid. This game involves strategy as well as fitness, and the students absolutely love to play it even when they are tired from the day’s activities. Talking and trading experiences around the campfire is popular as well. The students are encouraged to bring frisbees, footballs, etc., but at this Elevation, koosh was king.

I’m sure you realize by now that I’m a huge fan of Elevation. In fact, I think it’s a great experience for nearly anyone at any age. It certainly stretched me and even prompted me to to make a couple changes in my life. The mentors and trail guides are extremely adept at modifying activities and giving praise and encouragement according to individual abilities. They open up to the students in a way that is just very authentic and real, which opens the doors for these students to receive the wisdom of these mentors. If you send your student to Elevation, will your student come back to you in a way that is changed for the better? Of course there are no guarantees because it depends on how much your student uses this unique experience, but I do believe that Elevation sows the seeds that will eventually bring forth good changes in your student’s life.

June 20, 2017